American Aquarium: Politics, Religion and Starting a Dialogue

BY MIA POHLMAN

American Aquarium is a rock ‘n roll country band from North Carolina that has been touring for the past 13 years. Raised in an “extremely conservative Southern Baptist” part of rural North Carolina, frontman BJ Barham left to attend college in Raleigh, North Carolina, when he was 18. This, he says, completely changed his worldview; thus, much of Barham’s career as a musician has been about sharing his perspective with people in rural areas to start a dialogue.

At the height of the band’s touring, they were playing more than 300 shows a year, earning a reputation as “road warriors” and “road dogs.” Barham is happy that in the last few years, they have been able to slow down with touring a bit, a change in the band that is especially exciting for him given the birth of he and his wife’s daughter a year and a half ago.

The Shipyard Music Festival, where they’ll play the evening of Saturday, September 28, is one of only six shows they have booked for the rest of the year; they’re planning to take time off until their new record, “Lamentations,” releases in April 2020. We had a phone conversation with Barham about his perspectives, new album and how becoming a father has changed him and his work. Here, we’ve edited and condensed the conversation so you can get to know Barham a little better, too.
Can you talk more about the project of “Lamentations,” any themes running through the work and your process in writing?

BJ Barham: The new record is, as always, a two-year snapshot of what I've been doing the last couple years or what I’ve been observing, what I’ve been paying attention to. “Lamentations” has two definitions: one definition is talking about things that you see wrong in the world. It’s almost like a complaining, almost. It’s a fancy word for complaining. So there’s a bunch of sad songs that kind of go with that. And also, it’s a Biblical term. There’s a book in the Bible called Lamentations, and it’s one man’s letter to God kind of asking him why he gave up on Jerusalem. So it’s kind of a Southerner’s perspective, kind of questioning a lot of the political climate and cultural climate we have in this country right now, just kind of questioning why does everything seem like it’s falling apart.
I read somewhere that for this last album, it was important to you to go to smaller places and play this album and talk with people, given our current political climate and extreme divisiveness in our country. Is that still something that’s important to you?

Of course. I’m from a small town. I’m from an extremely conservative Southern Baptist part of North Carolina. I was raised there. I am proof that you do not have to be a product of your raising. I moved to Raleigh when I was 18 years old and learned almost everything I learned socially, culturally in that small, closed-minded town was completely wrong. It was completely off-base. And it wasn’t out of hate, it was out of not knowing any better. It was how my parents were raised; it was how their parents were raised.

So it was important to me, especially as a small-town Southerner, to travel around not just the South, but in small-town America in general and talk to folks. I think it’s very important to songwriters to keep turning your ear to the ground and know what people who like your music are thinking, know what they’re saying. Know what their observations of the world are. … It’s about taking other people’s observations, taking your observations and kind of making these comments on society. And your goal is to not offend anybody, your goal is not to tell somebody they’re wrong. Your goal is to get your idea out there and present it in a way that starts a discussion, not an argument. And that’s the most important part for me, especially in 2019, is to be able to get these dialogues going.

We’re in a weird space in our country where you have to be extremely far left or extremely far right; there’s no in-the-middle, there’s no agreeing on anything. And so my goal obviously with my music is to entertain, but also a lot of it is to inform people and let people know what the other side’s thinking or what both sides are thinking. That’s when you really nail a song is when you can represent both sides equally.
That is something that’s really cool about you guys’ music as well — you don’t paint rural America either as one big party like a lot of mainstream country radio is doing, but you also don’t paint it solely as a vortex of poverty and problems like a lot of mainstream media would have it.

Yeah, a lot of your mainstream country artists want to talk about all of the fun things about being Southern. They want to talk about cold beer, pickup trucks, Friday nights, dirt roads. And then the media just paints it as this ignorant backdrop for America, just to fill in all the space between the West Coast and the East Coast, and the bustling metropolises on each coast.

… But we’re also more than just Bud Light and pickup trucks. I think it’s important to talk about those elephants in the room. I think it’s important to talk about the things that your mother tells you not to talk about at Thanksgiving dinner. I think it’s important to start talking about religion and the role it plays in America. I think it’s important to talk politics. Whether or not you’re left or right, I think it’s important to talk about the current climate that our country’s in.

They’re pitting us against each other, the media and these political pundits. They want to focus on what we don’t have in common instead of the large, huge chunk of things we do have in common. And that’s the problem is you have to be left, you have to be right, you can’t just be a moderate anymore. You can’t pick the issues and then decide for yourself. If you’re left, you have to agree with all of these issues; if you’re right, you have to agree with all of these issues, and I think it’s time — especially someone from the South — stands up and says, “You know, you can be a liberal who believes in the Second Amendment and believes in a woman’s choice and believes in being fiscally responsible. That’s not a Republican or a Liberal thing, that’s the things that I hold true, that’s the things I believe in.” And you can pick from each side, pick the things that you believe in and make a decision on who you think could best prioritize those and then make them happen.

What I want to tell people is there is a middle ground. There is being able to talk about our differences and not fighting with each other, just having a discussion. Because when you can have these discussions, it’s a beautiful thing. Because when you get informed on what the other side believes and why they believe it, it can also help inform, test what you believe. Test whether what you believe is a strong argument or a weak argument. And it just makes us better people, being surrounded by people who disagree with us.

When you’re inside these insular bubbles of people that just agree with everything you say, that’s not fun. That’s what breeds complacency. That’s what breeds ignorance is just being told you’re right all the time.
What are you most excited about with the new album you’re creating?

I’m just excited about saying more. It’s been two years since the last record. I’m excited about putting another record out there. It’s one of those things where I’m excited to get back in the studio, and I'm excited to get back into writing. I’ve got a lot to say on this record, and I can’t wait to say it.
You mentioned earlier that it feels really great when you get a song that presents both perspectives. Do you have any songs either upcoming or that you’ve written that you’re thinking of in particular where you feel like you really nailed it and are really proud of how you presented equal sides?

Yeah, there’s a new song on the next record called “The Luckier You Get,” and I feel like I did a really good job of representing something we can all agree on. I’ve played it for people who I know agree with the views I say, and I play it for people who don’t agree with the views I say, and everybody seems to like that song.
How has becoming a father changed you and your work?

I used to be pretty cold when it came to leaving for a tour. Now it hurts every single time. I just left a couple days ago; I was gone for four days, and it seemed like an eternity. … It’s pretty important to me and to the rest of the guys — especially [because] we’re in our mid-30s now — to start taking more time off the road, to start focusing on family. In my case, focusing on not just my family, but being there for the moments you can’t get back. My daughter, it seems like I leave for four or five days, I come back home, and she’s doing something different. Like she learned to do something new or learned how to say something new, and as a father, I'm just tired of missing some of those moments. So I'm really excited to take the rest of the year off.
Is there anything else you want readers and listeners to know?

We’re just really excited to get to Cape Girardeau. We’ve never been there, and we’re just happy the festival gave us an excuse to come. We will see you all next weekend, then.

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